On August 9 1956, women of different races in South Africa marched against the pass system, which limited the physical and social freedom of all black people.
Shortly before this, the Federation of South African Women (FSAW) was established in 1954 as a broad-based support structure for women of different races.
This was the brainchild of Ray Simons who drew in others such as Helen Joseph, Lillian Ngoyi and Amina Cachalia who formed the steering committee for the organisation.
At the 1956 women’s march, many of the women wore traditional dress, others wore the congress colours, green, black and gold; Indian women were clothed in white saris. Many women had babies on their backs and some domestic workers brought their white employers’ children along.
The event had a life-changing effect on those present and transformed the history of women’s struggle in South Africa.
Neither the prime minister, JG Strijdom, nor any of his senior staff was there to see the women, so as they had done the previous year, when a similar peaceful demonstration happened, the leaders left the huge bundles of signed petitions outside JG Strijdom’s office door. He never opened them.
Then at Lilian Ngoyi’s suggestion, a skilful tactic, the huge crowd stood in absolute silence for a full 30 minutes. Before leaving, in a peaceful and dignified way, the women sang Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Without exception, those who participated in the event described it as a moving and emotional experience. It was regarded as a monumental achievement.
The significance of the Women’s March 60 years ago must be understood for its meaningfulness then, and today.
Women had once again shown that the stereotype of women as intellectually and politically inept and immature, tied to the home, was outdated and inaccurate. It was decided that August 9 would henceforth be commemorated and celebrated as national Women’s Day.
I attended one such event on Women’s Day and was moved by the powerful women who stood up to tell their stories of strength, overcoming adversity and rising to be pillars in their communities.
However, one of the very strong messages that came through was that women today appear to have freedoms but there are still many visible and invisible barriers that prevent them from fully owning these freedoms.
These include that in many job situations they do not get considered for higher positions, are not seen as able to potentially grow in the company due to having to bear children one day and are therefore not seen as an asset.
And despite these ongoing social and legal challenges to freedom, something deeper might also be contributing to this problem.
Essentially, true freedom lies in our minds. Many women may continue to believe that they are not worthy, not good enough, not strong enough, not white enough, etc. But let it be said you are stronger, amazing and more worthy than you can imagine.
As Marianne Williamson states in her inspiring poem, Our Deepest Fear, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”.
However, the difficult or dark side of this is that when some women excel and do well, instead of praising them and looking to their example, others may envy them and wish them bad luck. But this is not going to help us grow as women (and men) or as a society.
We need to recognise the envy as part of our ego and own feelings of inadequacy, often having nothing to do with the other person. We need to recognise this, then do everything in our power to do something about our situation.
Believe in yourself enough to start something if you cannot find a job. Don’t blame others or the government.
If you feel stuck, get help, professional or other. But do something.
Don’t sit around complaining and whining about how unfair life is and that other people have things you don’t. Social media and materialism are also contributing to this.
Women may see other profiles and compare themselves, thinking they do not measure up or worse, try to show off even more. This is bowing down to the seemingly perfect lives of others, especially celebrities. If that is what they do, then let them. You have your own life, different and equally important. They are not better than you. Take time out from social media if this will help you, but focus on your own life and how you are using this precious time on earth.
I was very inspired by the story of a particular woman at the Women’s Day event. She had been living on the streets for a significant period, with nothing to her name and no family and friends to support or help her. But one day she realised that if she wanted to get out of the streets, she must do something about it herself. She went and “knocked on some doors” to find out how she could start her own business. She got a little help and started with selling very little goods from a street corner.
She now runs a fully-fledged business and has financial freedom which she never imagined.
As women we can rise up out of the ashes of all forms of oppression but it’s up to us, as individuals and as a community. We need each other, we need to be more tolerant of differences and we need to encourage each other. There is also another true story of a woman who rose from the streets to go to university. The video is called Homeless to Harvard and you can watch it on YouTube.
* This column appears every two weeks. Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist in private practice. While she cannot enter into correspondence with individual readers, she will try to answer as many queries as possible through this column or refer you to organisations that can assist.
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